A ‘Psalm of Life’ is a very famous poem by the American poet Henry Wadsforth Longfellow. He was a 19th century poet who had a recurring theme of Romanticism throughout his works, including this one. The word ‘psalm’, as seen in the title, means a sacred or religious song. This is essentially a song of life in which the poet glorifies life and its possibilities. Although he was Christian, he argues against specific Biblical verses and references to convince the reader to lead a full life. He also speaks of not wasting life, achieving goals by not wasting time and always keeping faith in life.
It’s given subtitle ‘What the Heart of the Young Man Said to the Psalmist’, can prove to give us a greater understanding into the context of the poem as here a young man is responding to the Biblical teachings that this human life is not important. The poem is written in an optimistic and didactic tone, meaning a directly instructional voice. The poem is written in 9 stanzas of 4 lines each. The poet keeps an ABAB rhyme scheme which is consistent throughout the poem to keep the poem engaging for the reader to help them better understand the poem.
The poem is ‘numbered’, as the first of each couplet has 8 syllables and the second has 7 syllables. I have divided the extract into nine sections, in relation to the stanzas, which I will address and analyse separately. The first stanza begins the poem by illustrating the perception of life according to the audience and how the speaker initially reacts to such an insight: The phrase “mournful numbers” suggests that the audience is not one but many voices. ‘Numbers’ can also allude to the Bible.
The speaker is asking that these voices cease their complaining and whining that “‘Life is but an empty dream’! The statement suggests that life is something of a worthless, imagined fantasy. However, the speaker argues: “For the soul is dead that slumbers / And things are not what they seem. ” Here, he extends on his life-as-dream metaphor that if that comparison holds true, then all our souls are already deceased as one who is ‘sleeping’ and ‘dreaming’ all the time does not get a chance to truly experience life. The speaker suggests that life is misunderstood if it is interpreted as a dream, because a dream is something bodiless and subconscious, and life is not meant to be either of those things. This is also the first reference to “the soul.
The reference of the soul is seen throughout the poem and is the primary component of the speaker’s interpretation of life and death. The second stanza tries to convey the true value of life, how it is meant to be perceived and directly argues for its ethereal nature. In the first line, the speaker uses the similar sentences with different adjectives to try ingrain a positive attitude towards life into the minds of the audience. In the second line, where ‘grave’ indicates death, the phrase declares that death is not the purpose of life, that we are not born just to die, and that there is actually meaning and depth to life.
The semicolon at the end of this line can be interpreted as the poet trying to let this thought convey into the minds of the audience who have an entirely different perception of life. The third verse is a Biblical verse, referring to the fact that God made the human body out of dust and it to the dust that we will return when we die. In the fourth line, he replies to previous verse by saying that although we will eventually die and our bodies will cease to exist, he believes that in the existence of the soul after death. The third stanza addresses the ideal way to live life.
The third stanza of A Psalm of Life is about the ideal way of living. The poet suggests that neither enjoyment, nor sorrow should be our ultimate aim or way of life. He means to say that in an ideal life there should be both enjoyment and sorrow in a balanced way. But that is not crucial. The most important thing is to work, and work diligently so that we can always be a better-learned, better-skilled and better-mannered human being with every passing day. The poet in The Psalm of Life doesn’t want us to waste even a single day. In the fourth stanza, the speaker addresses the reality of death and our responsibilities in this life.
In the first line, the speaker is underlining the fact that there is not enough time allotted in a lifetime to experience everything. Additionally, the capitalization of the terms, ‘Art’ and ‘Time’ suggests the importance that these concepts have over humanity. In the second line, the speaker illustrates the heart as the centre of emotion and personifies it as having traits of strength and bravery. This is meant to highlight the fact that while humanity may be strong and valiant in most aspects of life, no amount of power can stop the inevitability of death.
The “beating” of the heart (“beating” here has a double meaning, referring to both the regular rhythm of the heart as well as the standard method of striking a funeral drum) is just a physical reminder of that truth. The fifth stanza, fuelled by the down tone in the previous stanza, illustrates the harshness of life but with an optimistic tone to counter it. In the first two lines, the war metaphors “broad field of battle” and “bivouac” illustrate life as dangerous, exposed, and temporary.
However, despite such circumstances, the speaker asks the audience to “be not like dumb, driven cattle! ” but to be more like a “hero in the strife! This is the contrast and the speaker telling us to counter it. Cattle are herd animals, so the speaker does not want us to just follow the herd blindly without any goals. However, the speaker wants the audience to do the opposite and think independently and respond appropriately.
The sixth stanza addresses the climax of the poem and summarises it. The speaker is stating that the future (capitalised because of how important it is) is not to be trusted as nothing is certain. The poet then personifies the past and says through this we should not let the past affect the way we act in the present which is the most important time.
This is the poets first direct reference to God, which is capitalized. This shows that he does believe in God to an extent. In the seventh and eight stanzas, the speaker teaches the audience how to act and what such actions can do for the community. The speaker starts by saying that the feats men have accomplished to become great in the past illustrate limitless human potential. In the third and fourth line of the seventh stanza and the whole of the eighth stanza, the speaker paints an image of great men of the past walking through ‘sand’ (which is interpreted as the history of the world) and finding their way to great things (i. . leaving their footprints).
He says that anyone can become like them by sustaining a positive attitude towards life and maybe even leave some footprints of our own which other people will find in the future. The repetition of the word ‘footprints’ not only creates emphasis but is also written twice to illustrate how footprints come in pairs. The ‘shipwrecked’ man who appears in the third line is an example of the people the speaker was talking about earlier in the poem, who has a pessimistic view on life.
The word “main” in the second line of the eighth stanza is particularly important, as the literary meaning of “main” is “the open ocean. ” Since the man is described as figuratively “shipwrecked,” and given that a ship can be recognized as a vessel of travel and protection, to be stripped of a ship is be stripped of all navigation through the “open ocean” that is life. This could be mentally and physically exhausting, and it is no wonder then that the brother would feel sad and abandoned.
However, if the man heeds the speaker’s instructions on how to properly live life, he will “take heart again. ” The ninth stanza says the message again with parting lines. The speaker is asking the audience to remember the importance of constant performance and to be ready for whatever may come along the way. However, the word “wait” seems to suggest that one should not rush into anything. While living in the present moment may be the goal every day, recklessness is not warranted. But if everything is done rationally, one will be able to live life to the full.
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